Legal Matters

Impartiality in a World Gone Viral

by Patrick Flanagan

In a high-tech world, seating a jury not exposed to potentially prejudicial elements of criminal cases gets harder by the day.

The video of his confession was startling in its clarity: "My name is Matthew Cordle, and on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani." More shocking, though, was where the confession took place - online - visible to everyone, including law enforcement and prosecutors. In fact, as of Sept. 9, just six days after being posted, the original video on YouTube had been viewed close to 1.5 million times.

In the video, Cordle, a 22-year-old from Ohio, admits to drinking heavily with friends on the night of the accident, attempting to drive home, then blacking out. His car entered the wrong lane and struck Canzini's car. Following the accident, Cordle's blood-alcohol content rang in at 0.19 more than twice the legal limit in Ohio.

Since his confession, Cordle has been indicted for aggravated vehicular homicide and operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.

He has pledged to plead guilty and accept his punishment.

Fifty years ago, a different type of videotaped confession was under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1961, a 19-year-old man robbed a bank in Lake Charles, kidnapped three of the bank's employees, and killed one of them. Wilbert Rideau was arrested by the police and confessed to the crime. A "moving picture film with a sound track" was made of the "interview" and was broadcast by a local television station three times over the following three days. It was estimated that the film was seen by 97,000 people - more than half of Calcasieu Parish's population at the time. Though his lawyers asked to move the trial in light of the broadcast confession, Rideau was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in Calcasieu Parish on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping and murder.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Rideau's conviction, finding that Rideau could not have had an impartial jury in Calcasieu Parish, and stating, "For anyone who has ever watched television, the conclusion cannot be avoided that this spectacle, to the tens of thousands of people who saw and heard it, in a very real sense, was Rideau's trial - at which he pleaded guilty to murder. Any subsequent court proceedings in a community so pervasively exposed to such a spectacle could be but a hollow formality." (Rideau served 44 years and was freed in 2005 after his fourth trial, in which he was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.)

In the 50 years since Rideau, communication has infiltrated our daily lives in ways never before imagined. Where Rideau's confession was seen by 97,000 people in a relatively small area of Louisiana, Cordle's confession, in a mere six days, was seen by more than 1.5 million people around the world - not including those who have seen it on CNN, Fox News and countless other networks that rebroadcast it.

Some have questioned Cordle's motives for making the confession. Though he claims the purpose of the video was to discourage drinking and driving, some have suggested that he is trying to build sympathy in an effort to get a reduced sentence. Whatever his true intent, the rate at which this video has spread through social media and the national news demonstrates that even matters of seemingly local importance are now accessible and followed on a much broader scale. News is shared not just by traditional media outlets, but through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and a host of other social networking sites. No one can predict when or if a particular story will go "viral."

It is not just cases involving murder that capture the Internet's attention. Even seemingly minor matters have a way of spreading very quickly, especially when the criminals are the ones posting about their own misdeeds. In November 2012, a seven-minute video called "Chick Bank Robber" was posted to YouTube by a young, blond, tattooed woman. In the video, she holds up several handwritten signs confessing to stealing cars and an armed bank robbery. Nineteen-year-old Hannah Sabata, the woman in the video, was arrested just a few hours after the video was uploaded and has been sentenced to 10-20 years in prison. Her YouTube video has been seen by more than 1.4 million people.

Each of these cases is different from Rideau in that Rideau did not choose to broadcast his confession on television. However, as more and more of our everyday lives are shared on the Internet for all to see - whether firsthand or by online "friends" - courts will have to grapple with the inevitable dilemma of securing and ensuring impartial juries in a hyper-connected world.

In a world gone viral, is it even feasible to gather a jury that has not already been exposed to some potentially prejudicial elements of criminal cases? While the Rideau case can offer some guidance, the new reality of our social and technological behaviors may well require new approaches to defining impartiality and the selection of qualified juries.

Cliff LaCour, who was recently inducted president of the Lafayette Young Lawyers Association, is an attorney with the Lafayette firm of NeunerPate, practicing primarily in the areas of admiralty and maritime, federal litigation, and employment and labor law.